Authenticity is the new Personal Brand
Which adjectives come to your mind when you hear the phrase ‘personal brand’? ‘Impactful’? ‘Meaningful’? ‘Genuine’?
Maybe. But for some the words ‘artificial’, ‘plastic’, ‘cringe-worthy’ — and even ‘gross’ — are closer to the mark. It seems that there’s been something of a backlash against personal branding.
Take this June 2019 article by Trip O’Dell in Fast Company, which suggested that personal branding — the practice of marketing yourself and your career in the same way as you would a branded physical product or service — is ‘a gross concept… best reserved for commodities, cattle and corporations’.
It’s all very far removed from when the same publication was encouraging us to be ‘the CEO of Me Inc.’ back in 1997.
So, how did the concept of personal branding fall so far from grace after two decades? And is it salvageable?
Personal branding — what went wrong?
Personal branding may well have become a victim of its own success.
There was always a fallacy of composition embedded in the idea that ‘it’s good for certain individuals to be brands, therefore everyone should do it’.
Think of it this way. It might be possible to avoid heavy traffic on your drive to work if you leave 15 minutes earlier. But if everybody decides to drive to work 15 minutes earlier, then heavy traffic would just occur 15 minutes earlier and nobody wins.
In short: What’s achievable for an individual or a small group, is often impossible for an entire population.
In the same way, personal branding — in the sense of maintaining a carefully curated and managed image of oneself online and in person — becomes somewhat ineffective if everyone is trying to do it.
When personal branding first entered the public consciousness in the late 1990s — well before social media and widespread, always-on internet — people’s attempts at personal branding truly were personal — i.e. mostly limited to their in-person interactions. The world has changed a lot since then.
Nowadays — in a world of smartphones, social media and 24/7 information — influencer culture has made personal branding a lot less about personal interactions and more about persuading a much larger audience, often with a strong financial incentive.
Given people’s tendency to baulk at the idea of being manipulated, there’s been something of a backlash against brand power, social media and the rise of influencers generally— and against personal branding in particular, too.
So, is personal branding dead?
Authenticity is key
Perhaps the idea of personal branding needs rebranding itself.
Shelly Lazarus — former CEO of marketing agency Ogilvy and Mather — put it well when she said this in an article for the Harvard Business Review:
“I hate it when people talk about personal brand. Those words imply that people need to adopt identities that are artificial and plastic and packaged, when what actually works is authenticity.”
For personal branding to be a successful technique in this day and age, it needs to focus on the ‘personal’ part before the ‘branding’ part. Here, I agree with Trip O’Dell, who highlights the importance of ‘ethos — an authentic expression of your values and identity’ when presenting yourself to others.
Authenticity has always been key. Personal branding, like any other endeavour, will eventually fail if it doesn’t have a firm foundation in truth.
Your personal branding efforts have to be about emphasising the positive qualities you already have, the achievements that you genuinely had a key role in driving and — yes — the development areas you’re working to improve on.
Oscar Wilde put it better than anyone else could.
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”